A little over half a year into the Brexit Show, the author of the famous Article 50 that enabled it to happen talked to the Dutch journalist Melle Garschagen, for a piece that appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 4 January 2017. It led me to write to this distinguished diplomat and peer, whose reply to me is the provisional highpoint in my interaction with the powers that be.
John Kerr, Baron Kerr of Kinlochard, is one of the most sensible people you can ever hope to come across, with a record of achievement that makes your head spin. In the NRC interview he made some pertinent comments on the situation that unfortunately are still pertinent, but even he did not understand the nature and foresee the sheer duration of what was to come. “It’s about divvying up the pot, regulating things like the pensions of British EU functionaries. The negotiations will be dirty and short. This is the world of Thomas Hobbes. Whatever I win, you lose, and vice versa.” You could only wish he had been right. As it turned out, the truly vicious divisiveness lay not between Britain and the European Union, but in the ranks of the abominable Tory party. Whatever problems Britain has with the EU can indeed be negotiated. The infighting among the Tories cannot, and will continue to poison world as well as British affairs for as long as the party survives.
One remark of Lord Kerr’s in the interview touched me personally, and I felt compelled to write to him about it.
14 January 2017
Dear Lord Kerr,
In NRC Handelsblad last week I read an interview with you in which you deplored the Dutch No to the European constitution. You called the constitution a splendid document of which Montesquieu would have been proud.
I beg to differ. It was in fact the text of the document that obliged me to vote against approval. At the time I explained myself in a column in the Financieele Dagblad and on my blog. http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/schwartzlist/?id=43
With real regret, as a fervent supporter of the European movement, I spelled out my reasons for voting No. I did so because I took the proposed constitution seriously. My vote was not against “Europe” but against the document and its insincere appeal to the culture of Europe.
After the referendum the Dutch government self-servingly put into the mouths of voters reasons for their rejection of the proposal, reasons that minimized the failure of the European and Dutch governments to produce and champion a constitution that would stir the electorate. This begins, I’m sorry to say, with the text of the constitution itself, which was plainly written not for the people but for the pols and the penpushers.
With best wishes,
I cannot say that I expected to receive a reply, but I did, raising Lord Kerr even higher in my esteem. I feel free to publish his mail today because he has expressed himself in similar tones in public since, although not as bluntly as in his mail.
21 January 2017
Dear Mr Schwartz,
Thank you for your message. I haven’t seen the NRC Handelsblad story, but it sounds as if the journalist didn’t quite catch my joke : I don’t actually see myself as a Montesquieu (though he too didn’t understand the English : he based the doctrine of “separation of powers” on what he, quite wrongly, thought he saw in London.)
I’m sorry you didn’t like the Constitutional Treaty. It sounds as if the Preamble was what most annoyed you : I hope so, because I had no hand in it, and indeed tried to suppress it. The long Part III was certainly a mistake : we should have left it to the lawyers subsequently to transfer the new definitions and delineations into the existing Treaty. But I still think there were a number of good features in Parts I and IV. And I was cross with your then Government for signing up to it but not campaigning for it (and not resigning when you rejected it.) I had a row with Foreign Minister Bot about that : we haven’t spoken since.
He has the last laugh, alas. I am very sad about the way events have turned out in my country. I thought it was right to include a Secession clause in the Treaty, to emphasise the voluntary nature of Union membership, but it never occurred to me that the UK would be stupid enough to have recourse to it.
To which I wrote the following reply.
7 February 2017
Dear Mr. Kerr,
Many thanks for your interesting and open response to my criticism of the European Constitution. You’re perfectly right about the inadequate behavior of the Dutch government before and after the referendum of 2005. They have staged an equally if not more damaging repeat performance in their treatment of the referendum on the Ukraine Association Agreement. To wiggle out of the impossible situation into which it maneuvered itself after the No vote, it imposed on the Dutch as well as the other EU countries its own mind-reading interpretation of the intentions of the voters and pretended to deal with them in that non-committal addendum. This is not very different from the creation of alternative facts.
This time around, their transparent disingenuousness has opened the door wide to an assortment of anti-Europe right-wing parties, providing them with live ammunition for their attacks. (Fortunately, the parties are unable to join forces.) Which in turn led the government to turn around and grieve about the rise of populism.
Writing this, I realize more clearly than ever how great the share of Dutch centrist politics has been in fuelling extreme opposition. The resemblances to the dreadful Brexit story are apparent.
About the Constitution – I commented on it from what I saw as my responsibility as an art historian-columnist. Judging it from that perspective, I found that it exploited the idea of European culture in the preamble only to shortchange it in the substance of the Constitution.
With my very best wishes,
© 2019 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 26 October 2019
President Donald Trump has put many a noose around his own neck without losing a breath, but this time he’s yanking the rope harder than usual. The testimony of William Taylor, detailing how Trump put the lives of Ukrainians in jeopardy and damaged American diplomacy to further his own political career, can bring him down. If enough Republican senators up for re-election next year come to the realization that being linked to him is toxic to themselves and vote for impeachment, and a few others join them, that might do it.
But that is not the news from Washington that moves me the most. What does is the ascent of Elizabeth Warren as a likely Democratic candidate. I have never seen anyone that qualified, that intelligent and that honest rise so high in American national politics. That she could reach that position already has a salutary effect. Other Democratic candidates now have to compete with her in dignity, in command of the issues, in integrity, in humaneness. If the Republicans do that as well, the country might yet be saved.
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4 thoughts on “376 Article 50”
Thank you for sharing this.
Though in a minority, especially as a Brit, I actually find the Brexit saga so far quite OK. A non-binding referendum with a near 50-50 result, was stupidly made binding by both Conservative and Labour manifestos, even though only a minority in Parliament wanted it. The C’s are still trying to push it through (restrained by the legal system and parliament, both working well), while the Labour Party’s now finally turned tail and in favour of a second referendum (as am I). Still think that’s a possibility, and the economics of remaining will triumph.
For an alternative view of Elizabeth Warren (ie, that she’d cause a financial armageddon for the US, which I think quite probable given rising levels of national and individual debt) you might/might not like:
I doubt that Wall St will let her win and that’s usually what counts (and means Trump may not be going so fast…),
Best wishes to you and Loekie,
Elizabeth Warren’s policies, as I see it, will give Americans payable health insurance and education, which the Dutch and British enjoy without ruining their economies. However, you will notice that I laud her to the skies not for that but for the courteousness of her discourse and her personal honesty, which I hope can become the new standard for US politicians to try to meet.
Be well, old friend,
The behavior and fate of centrists – Dutch, English conservatives, Republican senators – is well described by Marx in “The Eighteenth Brumaire”: tactical alliances, tactical betrayals, strategic collapse. Only intelligent politicians in prosperous countries can sustain the centrist balancing act for long; one recognizes intelligent politicans as you do, by their courtesy. So rare now; “the second time as farce,” and farce is crude.
It’s uplifting that Elizabeth Warren has risen to the top in the polls. I take comfort and reassurance where I can get them.